The haiku meeting at Morden Tower Newcastle on the 25th April 2010 centred around the work of women haikuists, Sujeto, Chigetsu, Sonome,

Chiyojo, Seifu and Kikusha.  Their dates ranged from 1633 – 1826.  This is to say the iceberg was barely scraped.  Nonetheless it was fascinating to learn something of the lives of these women who traversed the male dominated worlds of Japanese poetry and culture in their times.

Tanka, I learned was considered a more refined pursuit for ladies.  One could show off one’s knowledge of the masters.  In any case Haiku did not exist as such when most of these women were writing.

Hoku, (hokku) from which haiku developed, was the starting stanza of haikai-no-renga and these were poems written at parties which were male only affairs and involved drinking and adding verses to the poem.  So the standard of poetry shall we say – deteriorated as hours passed and very often became bawdy.

It was therefore often frowned on for women to write anything  but tanka and this game of the sexes is  not new but it’s seldom clear-cut and there were always men who admired the women and their writings.

My favourite of Chigetsu’s that we looked at, is very clever in that it deals with nature, as do all haiku, but it also deals with sex.

bamboo bud

breaking out of its layered sheath

a warrior in arms

It could be argued we thought, that emergence of the bamboo from its sheath is perhaps for us a Freudian image and there is no doubt that we struggle with our own cultural backgrounds all the time in our attempt to appreciate haiku.  But that is also true of other poetry.  Our group is culturally diverse and we often find that something as simple as a reference to water does not mean the same to each of us.  I’m not sure it matters…  In any case, I think we can say that whatever the original sounds and nuances, this one is about more than bamboo.

I like her!

Sutejo became a Buddhist nun after the death of her husband. 

not a single leaf

even the moon does not lodge

in this willow tree

she writes.

not a single leaf

But she had six children.  Perhaps she just felt unadorned and unattractive now.  It could sometimes appear that the moon rests in the branches of a tree in the way a husband might rest his head and I’m told the willow is a feminine image in Japanese poetry.  That the moon does not rest shows distance enough but here the “even the moon does not rest”.  That suggested to some of us that she was post-menopausal – the moon being linked with menstruation – so the image becomes that of an older woman alone.  Also as a nun she would have no possessions.

That emotional outcry was not really associated in my mind with Haiku.  I was told Haiku takes a step back and looks at the moment.  This moment feels raw to me.

Sonome used to neglect her chores.  One poem speaks of standing with hands in the sink, listening to a bird.  To me that was such a recognisable thing – lifted out of the chore and into a poem so that you must write the moment.  And yet until I began looking at haiku, I didn’t so much think of writing the moment.  It is a difficult thing to do but very liberating and at the same time grounding – it enables any moment to become more than it is and helps you to appreciate it for what it is.  This is a thing we don’t tend to do in our culture and modern world where time flies and is money and is fettered by clocks and routines.

Sonome wrote one about loneliness too – about sitting at a gate drawing eyebrows on a melon and longing for someone.  A friend? we asked.  A lover?  A child?  It was open to interpretation but eyebrows on a melon – not even a whole face and not a smile, just eyebrows.  It’s amusing in part.  It’s sad also.  But eyebrows are very expressive if you think about it.  Draw some circles with different eyebrows on and you’ll see.  You could stay with this one for hours and I think it’ll stay with me for a long time.


traces of a dream

a butterfly

through the flower field

It’s a soufflé, a meringue of a haiku.  It’s elusive and it’s transitory and it’s life!  Such beauty, delicacy and depth all in one.

I wish I’d written that.

Kikusha, widowed at 23 travelled throughout Japan as a Buddhist nun for thirty years, head shaven and with no possessions, in the late 16th Century.  These were remarkable women.  Once on visiting a Chinese Ming-style monastery set amongst the green tea terraces of Japan, she wrote:

one step outside

the temple gate, it’s Japan

a tea picker’s song

We were discussing how one step can lead you from one place to another, one life to another and we saw some parallels:

one step outside

Morden Tower, it’s Chinatown

city commerce roars



What I did write took several drafts.  It seems to be that the shorter a piece is, the longer it takes to get it right.  And have I got this right yet?  I think maybe not but my purpose is to show the process here not the product and so:

bee and buzz-saw sound

flip-flap – shadows ghost the ground

sunny wash day sheets

I was trying to follow 5,7,5 here but it’s too busy for haiku.  So I cut it down:

sheet shadows

ghost the ground

wash day

This one doesn’t have any season word in it though and so I added Spring:

sheet shadows

ghost the ground

Spring wash day

But some of the group thought that wash day is redundant since the sheets are obviously on the line.

Now it is:

sheet shadows

ghost the ground

first Spring day

I wanted the idea of freshness in that first Spring day and that the ghosts of winter were swept away at the first opportunity to hang those sheets on the line.  The sheets are playful, playing ghosts on the ground – almost like children playing.  Some thought that sheets had a sexual connotation but you have to face it, sometimes sheets are just sheets. 

I think I’m getting close.  But maybe I’d better not neglect my chores any longer.

(You can find another brief commentary by Oonah on two poems at

The finished product of this haiku was chosen as Poem of the month at Diamond Twig in April 2011 🙂 It takes a while to write a good haiku!